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Will Urban Air Mobility Take Off?

Yes, No, and Maybe

An eVTOL, also known as a flying car, flies past the Eiffel Tower in Paris.
Paris, France, plans to debut eVTOLs at the Olympic Games in 2024. (Image Copyright, and Courtesy, of Choose Paris Region)

Can urban air mobility (UAM) succeed? A good number of enterprises – for-profit and not-for-profit – along with educators, scientists, and government agencies, have been working hard to make UAM a reality. They’re hoping for a game-changer that will affect everything from private and public transportation to military applications, emergency services, surveillance, firefighting, and package delivery services, all while having a positive impact on climate change.

UAM Success – It’s Complicated

Many considerations need to be addressed for UAM to succeed. These include aircraft power sources (and the resources to provide that power), infrastructure, noise impacts, population density, vulnerabilities in the ecosystem, and certification challenges, to name a few. The general assumption has been that, once these obstacles are overcome, the UAM industry will succeed.

When researchers in Germany (Anna Straubinger of Bauhaus Luftfahrt) and the Netherlands (Erik. T. Verhoef of Vijre Universiteit Amsterdam and Henri L.F. de Groot of Tinbergen Institute) published the results of a 2021 study, their findings revealed that the answer to the UAM’s industry ultimate success, depends as much on where the services are offered and how they are structured, as it does on solving technological issues and taking environmental concerns into consideration.

When It Comes to UAM, Money Matters!

The researchers contend that, differences in household income and the way those differences impact the ultimate success of UAM is not a one-size-fits-all prospect. They cite “textbook examples,” such as Paris, France, and Detroit, Michigan. Both metropolitan areas are densely populated and have historically been plagued by traffic congestion. In Paris, higher-income households tend to live in the city center. In Detroit, the higher-income households that would be able to afford air taxi services, reside in the suburbs. This difference, the study concludes, might have as significant an impact on UAM’s ultimate uptake, as any of the other factors being considered.

Yes, commercial real estate rooftops might be cost-effectively adapted as vertiports. Yes, electric-powered and hybrid propulsions systems will, in all likelihood succeed. At least one manufacturer, Klein Vision, has had its “flying car” certified for air and ground travel. But, the elements to succeed, the study concludes, depends as much on income demographics – affordability – as it does on all the other hurdles being overcome.

UAM operations’ ultimate success and adoption, its utility, includes multiple factors,  including consumption of goods, housing, and leisure time. The idiom, “time is money,” cuts both ways. Money is time; more precisely – the amount of disposable or discretionary income – must be taken into consideration, along with population density, land availability and costs, weather factors, noise impacts, and how much lithium is available, how costly it is to acquire and, the environmental impacts of mining and recycling.

Work Matters and Housing Affordability Matters

The supply and demand for skilled and unskilled labor available in a given region, will also impact UAM’s short- and long-term success, the study’s author conclude. The availability and affordability of housing is significantly different in Paris than in Detroit. A cost-benefit analysis reveals that a city, such as Detroit, shows a significantly higher benefit in suburban areas when household income levels are factored into the equation as compared to Paris.

The study’s final conclusion: More study is needed. While we know what we know, we may not yet know what we don’t know about what it will take to make UAM fly.

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Dave Clarke

Dave Clarke is a California-based writer who is fascinated by the way technology changes our lives.